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County, provider discuss broadband expansion to rural areas

An example of slow rural internet speeds. Submitted image

When most people want to hop on the internet at home, all they have to do is make sure they are connected to Wi-Fi and go from there.

But for Kate Gartner, it is not that easy.

The Clark Township resident can’t use Wi-Fi or a modem because she does not have an internet provider. Instead, she and her husband use mobile hotspots on their phones, which add quite a bit to the couple’s cell phone bill, she said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the family’s lack of internet access became a bigger issue. Gartner had to do a lot of video-conferencing calls, and because the hotspot could not handle the calls, she had to pack up her things and drive down the road to her daughter’s house to work, she said.

Roughly 13.8% of Johnson County households do not have access to broadband, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

JCFiber, a local company, is looking to change that. The company recently approached county officials about its plans to expand access to underserved areas and asked for help paying for it, but the county so far has not taken any action, and at least one county official said he is not sure they will. State and federal efforts are also underway to expand access to rural areas.

Broadband expansion a complex issue

Internet access is crucial, especially now.

More people are working from home, attending school virtually and spending time on the web.

For Hoosiers, access to a wired internet connection of at least 10 megabytes a second has increased to 93.7% today from 86.6% in 2011, according to data from BroadbandNow.

However, there are an estimated 666,000 Hoosiers who do not have access to a wired connection capable of 25 Mbps download speeds across the state, and an estimated 718,000 have access to just one wired internet service provider. Another estimated 265,000 do not have access to an internet provider at all, according to BroadbandNow.

In Johnson County, 98.3% of residents have access to a wired connection of 25 Mbps or more, BroadbandNow data shows.

In 2019, an estimated 86.2% of Johnson County households had an internet subscription, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Based on the Daily Journal’s analysis of data from BroadbandNow, the county has the eighth-highest amount of coverage for wired connections of 25 Mbps. The No. 1 spot belongs to Hamilton County, with 99.7% coverage.

The numbers paint a picture of a county that should have overwhelming internet access. But the situation is more complicated than it seems.

Illustration of hands typing on a computer keyboard. Scott Roberson | Daily Journal
Illustration of hands typing on a computer keyboard. Scott Roberson | Daily Journal

Residents blame lack of ownership

Mobile hotspots can be expensive, and are not the Gartner’s choice. But because they live just east of the city limits — near the intersection of Franklin and Rocklane roads — it is oftentimes their only option.

Gartner has inquired with several providers about internet access, but none of them would be able to easily service her house, she said.

Some of her neighbors have access, so she asked a couple of them who their providers are.

One of those providers told her there was not enough space on the tower to add the Gartner’s house, she said.

Another satellite internet provider told her she could receive internet, but she would have to ask her neighbors to cut down their trees to get a signal for the satellite dish, which wasn’t an option, she said.

Gartner has reached out to the city of Greenwood, but there was not a lot they could do. After filling out a form on the city’s website, she was told the city could not do anything and to contact each provider to find out their plans for expanding access.

“It’s a very populated area, why is there no internet?” Gartner said.

The issue, in Gartner’s opinion, is lack of responsibility.

“No one seems to want to take ownership,” she said.

White River Township resident Brenda Allen’s internet access is OK, but could be better, she said.

Allen lives near the intersection of State Road 37 and Stones Crossing Road. Her provider is unreliable, with regular outages and occasional interruptions, but it is her only option, she said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the interruptions became even more inconvenient. Allen and her husband both worked from home, and her three kids did their school work at home. There were multiple times when they were working and the internet would randomly go out, she said.

“It’s ridiculous how our infrastructure is stuck … (like it’s) 40 years ago,” Allen said.

She would like to have better internet service. She has seen trucks from JCFiber in her White River Township neighborhood, and it is the only company she has heard from about potentially expanding access to include her home.

“It’ll be nice to have actual competition (between providers) with decent products,” Allen said.

JCFiber is in the midst of adding 600 miles of fiber throughout Johnson County and surrounding areas through 2024. The red zone signifies construction that took place during the first two quarters of this year. The orange zone is construction that will take place from the third quarter of this year to quarter one of 2022. The blue zone signifies construction that will take place from quarter two to quarter three of 2022. The green, burgundy and slate colored zones signify zones that do not have a timeline of construction as of now.

County considers proposed expansion

JCFiber is taking steps to expand access and close the digital divide.

The company is a subsidiary of Johnson County REMC, and provides fiber internet access throughout Johnson County and in some of its neighboring areas. JCFiber recently approached the county, presenting to both the Johnson County Board of Commissioners and Johnson County Council its plans for expansion in hopes that the county would help fund it.

Johnson County has a few underserved areas in an almost horseshoe-type shape. Most of the underserved areas are south of Whiteland Road, and a lot of them are in unincorporated areas. However, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where they are because they are so sporadic, said John Sturm, JCFiber president and JCREMC chief executive officer.

Data from the Federal Communications Commission shows that roughly 99.7% of Johnson County residents have access to three or more internet providers. However, JCFiber estimates there are roughly 5,000 residents who are underserved by their providers, Sturm said during a county council meeting earlier this month.

“There are a lot more underserved residents than FCC maps indicate,” Sturm said.

JCFiber has a network of about 300 miles of fiber, with both commercial and residential offerings, according to county documents. About 600 more miles of fiber are expected to be added through 2024 as part of its already-planned $28 million expansion, and the company has identified six zones for its build out.

JCFiber asked the county to be considered for potential tax abatements or funds from the county’s allocation of federal COVID-19 relief funds, of which it received more than $30 million.

They also recommended the creation of Infrastructure Development Zones for unincorporated areas of the county to help mitigate taxes. The zones are designed to provide a property tax exemption for people who invest in eligible infrastructure, such as expanded broadband access.

With additional funding, JCFiber could decrease the cost of their services for residents and speed up the expansion, Sturm said. The start-up fee for JCFiber is $99, which Sturm says he hopes to reduce.

The company is not seeking a specific amount.

“Any funding would help us get it out there quick,” he said.

JCFiber has tried to apply to as many grants as possible. But because the need for internet access is sporadic across the county, it makes it harder for the company to apply for grants, Sturm said.

County officials have not made any decisions about whether it will provide funds to JCFiber. While JCFiber is performing a great service, there are other viable options for internet providers, said Kevin Walls, a county commissioner.

The use of federal relief funds could create more problems down the road. The decision to provide county funding to JCFiber will likely come down to whether it would be fair to give those funds to just one internet provider instead of them all, which is not feasible, Walls said.

“Do you give it to one or do you give it to all?” he said.

At this point, there is no way to know what the endgame may be, Walls said.

Conversations continue between the company and county officials, Sturm said.

State, federal funding options exist

Another option to expand internet access locally could be state funding.

Improved access is such a high priority that Gov. Eric Holcomb included it in his Next Level Indiana plan. He committed $100 million in grant funding to expand access in unserved and underserved areas, according to state documents.

The NextLevel Connections Broadband Grant can only be applied for by providers, state documents show. JCFiber applied for it last year, and received $68,193 for a project that connected 37 households and three businesses in eastern Morgan County. The project also received a local match for $108,932.

Federal funding options are also available.

The first is through the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Reconnect program, which provides loans or grants to communities to help provide sufficient broadband to rural areas. No Johnson County entity, including internet providers, have received funding through this avenue.

Two other federal grants are through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is designed to bridge the digital divide by providing $20.4 billion to communities to expand high-speed fixed broadband.

JCFiber applied for the grant last year and received a winning bid for $272,079 for total 10-year support, federal documents show. The bid was for 176 customers within the company’s service area. But company officials chose not to pursue it, according to federal documents.

JCFiber declined the grant because the amount of money that was awarded was insignificant, and the regulations tied to the grant were burdensome, Sturm said.

“It’s not going to discourage us from getting to those 176 customers. It’s going to expediate that process,” he said.

In February 2020, the state’s Office of Broadband Opportunities released a strategic plan that focuses on expanding broadband access throughout the state. The office, created in 2018, is under Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch.

The report highlighted that the need for expanded access is more than just a matter of convenience. It also is an economic one. The lack of telecommunications and broadband infrastructure can hurt local businesses. Expanding quality access in rural areas could provide $12 billion in net benefits to the state, according to a 2018 Purdue University study.

Additionally, if REMCs provided rural broadband, there would be $2.25 billion in net benefits, including education, job creation, health care and consumer savings, the study showed.

Efforts to bridge divide underway

Earlier this month, Crouch hosted a roundtable in nearby Martinsville with several internet cooperatives to discuss bridging the internet divide in rural areas.

The roundtable was hosted in conjunction with Indiana Electric Cooperatives, a statewide service organization that provides Hoosiers with reliable electric power.

During the meeting, Crouch and providers discussed the Next Level Connections Broadband Grant program and how Indiana is expected to invest $270 million toward improving broadband access and adoption, according to a news release.

No Johnson County officials — nor local internet providers — attended the Martinsville meeting. JCFiber had talked with the cooperative about attending the roundtable, but due to a conflict were unable to do so, Sturm said.

Plans are underway to host a meeting in Johnson County at some point in the future, said Mandy Barth, the cooperative’s vice president of communication.

The state also can provide guidance to communities that are unsure of where to start through its Broadband Ready Community certification program. The program will give communities a certification that will show potential providers that a community has taken steps to reduce barriers and is ready to invest in broadband opportunities, according to state documents.

Communities that want to be certified need to institute procedures such as identifying a single contact for all broadband projects, and requiring all broadband permits to be reviewed within 10 business days of a filing, state documents show.

Johnson County does not have a single contact, but is looking into it, Walls said.

So far, 46 communities are certified as Broadband Ready, including counties, cities and towns. No Johnson County community is included on that list, according to Indiana Broadband.

Walls does not know if the county has looked into the state’s funding opportunities.

“I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer,” Walls said.

Internet accessibility by the numbers

93.7. The percentage of Indiana residents who have access to a wired internet connection of 10 Mbps as of 2021.

98.3. The percentage of Johnson County residents who have access to a wired connection of 25 Mbps or more as of 2021.

86.2. The estimated percentage of Johnson County households that have an internet subscription as of 2019.

13.8. The estimated percentage of Johnson County households that do not have an internet subscription as of 2019.

8th. Johnson County’s rank for internet coverage for wired connections of 2 Mbps. The county is the eighth-highest in terms of coverage.

718,000. The estimated number of Hoosiers who only have access to one wired internet service provider.

666,000. The estimated number of Hoosiers who do not have access to a wired connection capable of 25 Mbps download speeds.

265,000. The estimated number of Hoosiers who do not have access to an internet provider at all.

5,000. The estimated number of Johnson County residents who are underserved by their internet providers.

46. The number of communities, including counties, cities and towns, that are certified by the state as Broadband Ready.

0. The number of communities in Johnson County that are certified by the state as Broadband Ready.

Sources: BroadbandNow; U.S. Census Bureau; JCFiber; State of Indiana

By the numbers

$20.4 billion. The amount of money the Federal Communication Commission set aside in its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to bridge the digital Divide.

$12 billion. The amount of net benefits Indiana could receive by expanding telecommunications and broadband infrastructure, according to a 2018 Purdue University study.

$2.25 billion. The amount of net benefits REMCs across the state could provide to communities by providing rural broadband.

$270 million. The amount Indiana is expected to invest toward improving broadband access and adoption.

$100 million. The amount of money Gov. Eric Holcomb committed to the state’s NextLevel Connections Broadband Grant, which internet providers can apply for to increase broadband access.

$28 million. The cost of JCFiber’s planned 600-mile expansion.

Sources: FCC; State of Indiana; JCFiber

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